Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defence Policy
The defense debate tends to treat Afghanistan as either
a revolution or a fluke: either the Afghan Model of special
operations forces (SOF) plus precision munitions plus an
indigenous ally is a widely applicable template for
American defense planning, or it is a nonreplicable product
of local idiosyncrasies. In fact, it is neither. The Afghan
campaign of last fall and winter was actually much closer to
a typical 20th century mid-intensity conflict, albeit one with
unusually heavy fire support for one side. And this view has
very different implications than either proponents or
skeptics of the Afghan Model now claim.
Afghan Model skeptics often point to Afghanistans
unusual culture of defection or the Talibans poor skill or
motivation as grounds for doubting the wars relevance to
the future. Afghanistans culture is certainly unusual, and
there were many defections. The great bulk, however,
occurred after the military tide had turnednot beforehand.
They were effects, not causes. The Afghan Taliban
were surely unskilled and ill-motivated. The non-Afghan al
Qaeda, however, have proven resolute and capable fighters.
Their hosts collapse was not attributable to any al Qaeda
shortage of commitment or training.
Afghan Model proponents, by contrast, credit precision
weapons with annihilating enemies at a distance before
they could close with our commandos or indigenous allies.
Hence the models broad utility: with SOF-directed bombs
doing the real killing, even ragtag local militias will suffice
as allies. All they need do is screen U.S. commandos from
the occasional hostile survivor and occupy the abandoned
ground thereafter. Yet the actual fighting in Afghanistan
involved substantial close combat. Al Qaeda
counterattackers closed, unseen, to pointblank range of
friendly forces in battles at Highway 4 and Sayed Slim
Kalay. Al Qaeda defenders eluded detection or destruction
by American air attack and had to be overrun at Bai Beche,
Highway 4, and Operation ANACONDA. At Tora Bora,
failure to commit properly trained and motivated ground
troops to traditional close combat probably allowed the al
Qaeda quarry to escape.
None of this means that precision weapons or special
operations forces are not tremendously valuable. Few 20th
century combatants enjoyed anything like the power or
efficiency of U.S. high-tech fire support in Afghanistan. But
just as weeks of bombardment failed to kill the entirety of
1916s trench garrisons, so 2001s precision-guided fire
support killed many but not all of its al Qaeda opponents.
And even a handful of hostile survivors armed with modern
automatic weapons can be lethal to unskilled militia allies,
just as they were to poorly trained draftees in 1916.
The key to success, whether in 1916 or 2002, is to team
heavy, well-directed fires with skilled ground maneuver to
exploit their effects and overwhelm the surviving enemy.
This kind of skilled maneuver, however, is beyond the reach
of many potential indigenous allies. In Afghanistan, U.S.
proxies with American air support brushed aside unskilled,
ill-motivated Afghan Taliban, but against hard-core al
Qaeda opposition, outcomes were often in doubt even with
the benefit of 21st century U.S. air power and American
commandos to direct it. Where we face opponents with the
gumption and training to stand and fight, our allies need the
same, even with all the modern firepower we can offer them.
This in turn implies that we should neither restructure
the military to wage Afghan-style wars more efficiently, nor
reflexively commit conventional U.S. ground forces in every
conflict. Where we enjoy local allies with the needed skills
and motivation, we can expect the Afghan Model to work,
and we should use it. But we will not always be so lucky. In
Iraq, for example, the lack of a credible, trained opposition
bodes ill for an Afghanistan-style campaign without major
American ground forces. Deep cuts in ground capability
could thus be very risky in spite of our strengths in air power
or special operations forces. More broadly, though, we
should be wary of suggestions that precision weapons, with
or without special operations forces to direct them, have so
revolutionized warfare that traditional ground forces are
now superceded. Where our allies are good enough, they
may provide the ground troops for us, but what Afghanistan
really shows is that the wars of tomorrowlike those of
yesterdaywill continue to require skilled, motivated
forces on the ground, in strength, if we are to exploit our
technologys effects. Precision weapons are making that
ground-air combination ever more capable, but against
resolute opponents, neither air power nor conventional
ground forces will be able to prevail without the other any
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